Goodbye ColumBUS: New bus service, HATS, hoped to be improvement over former system.

July 01, 1996

THE PHRASE, "mass transit in Howard County," sounds like an oxymoron. An outer-ring suburb of Baltimore and Washington, Howard is a place where public transportation buses are about as difficult to find as corner mom-and-pop groceries. The ColumBUS system that ended its 20-year run last week carried 250,000 riders a year, far fewer than the number of passengers the state Mass Transit Administration carries any given day. So few buses ran in Columbia's system, there was no need for numbers or letters like those that distinguish MTA lines -- just a basic logo of red, gold, green and blue.

Nonetheless, some residents have depended heavily on ColumBUS to take them from village centers to the Mall in Columbia, to county government buildings in Ellicott City and other locations. The service was most appreciated by senior citizens, who understandably are excited -- if a bit anxious -- about the proposed expansion of service and the changing of the guard today from ColumBUS to HATS, or the Howard Area Transit Service.

Elderly residents complained to county officials and its bus contractor at a meeting last week of hour-long bus trips that would have taken only 15 minutes or less by car. In the past, riders have had to walk long distances to reach bus stops. And some key places are impossible to reach by bus. One woman complained about not being able to reach a popular lakefront destination in Columbia: "It's like having Baltimore and not letting people go to the Inner Harbor," she said.

Preliminary plans call for the system to serve Elkridge, Jessup, Snowden Square and the Gateway Industrial Park in eastern Howard. Someday, the line may extend to Ellicott City and rural west county. While the plan ambitiously seeks to create countywide service, the new operators will set themselves up to fail if they establish routes few people will use.

The Columbia Association, which manages recreation facilities in the planned city, struggled to operate the transit system before eventually relinquishing control. Providing bus service that meets various needs isn't easy -- just ask MTA -- and not everyone will be satisfied with the ultimate plan. But the county and its contractor seem eager to listen to prospective riders before making final their service map.

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